Every medical student has a pivotal moment that defines how they will care for patients as a doctor. For me, it was the loss of a teenage boy I worked with to manage his Type 1 diabetes — the same disease I struggled to manage as a teen — not to his medical condition but to gang violence.
That tragedy made me realize health care must go beyond diagnosing and treating a disease. A healthcare professional must understand and care for all the factors of a patient’s life — socio-economic status, race, prior trauma, environmental exposures, veteran status, and more — to effectively care for them.
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we teach more than 118,000 health professional trainees annually how to treat the whole patient — not just the symptoms in front of them, but the struggles the patient might be going through that impact their health. That integrative approach is what I learned when I trained at the Boston VA Medical Center, and what drew me to return to the VA.
In fact, roughly 70% of all doctors in the U.S. trained at VA facilities, and with the veteran population currently at 19.5 million, and more veterans eligible for VA health care through the PACT Act, we need more health professionals who are trained to meet their unique clinical needs.
Nationally, VA is the largest training platform for health professions education through partnerships with 96% of U.S. medical schools, including my alma mater, Harvard Medical School. Trainees learn to understand the patient as a whole — their goals, dreams, and challenges — and provide them with the right treatment, resources, and approach to their care. It’s through their clinical training working with veteran patients that trainees often experience their own pivotal moments — their why — that shape them as health care professionals.
VA training is packed with technical clinical skills — like those taught by VA surgeon Angela Guzzetta, MD, medical simulation surgical director of University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, who trains residents in robotic surgery at the Dallas VA. But it is VA’s interprofessional training that sets us apart. VA trains students and residents in over 60 health professions including pharmacy, nursing, general and specialized medicine at over 150 of VA’s medical centers in a learning environment that values each team member’s expertise.
Take, for instance, Minneapolis VA Physiatrist Alex Senk, MD. As a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician resident interested in sports medicine at University of Minnesota, he completed training at the Minneapolis VA spinal cord injury unit. There, he developed his passion for adaptive sports. He now teaches physiatry residents to incorporate adaptive sports to inspire severely injured veterans to achieve their goals. He’s even become a dive buddy for disabled veterans like Seth Thomas, a paraplegic who now is deep-water scuba dive-certified.
Clinicians like Orlando VA Nephrologist Abdo Asmar, MD, teach how to provide culturally competent care — care that meets the social, cultural and linguistic needs of patients. His trainees are residents at University of Central Florida School of Medicine, one of the more than 285 Minority Serving Institutions that partner with VA.
VA also remains at the forefront of teaching and championing accreditation for emerging health care disciplines while focusing on Veteran-specific needs. Training programs in specialties that are now integral to the health care landscape include psychology, geriatric medicine, nurse practitioner and social work. VA also is leading the way in accredited chiropractic residencies like the one Nate Hinkeldey, DC, established at the Des Moines VA that is advancing chiropractic medicine as part of the interdisciplinary health team.
These are just a few of the outstanding medical professionals who trained — and now teach — at VA. And we need more like them.
VA is on its way to achieving its goal of hiring 52,000 additional employees including physicians, nurses and other clinical occupations this fiscal year, keeping with Secretary Denis McDonough’s commitment to bring new medical staff onboard faster and more efficiently. In fact, VA has onboarded nearly 23,000 new hires — a 2.5% growth rate — since the start of this fiscal year, the most in the history of VA for that time period.
I invite medical professionals, current and recent VA trainees to join VA in our mission to serve veterans. You can be part of our team and have the opportunity to learn, to teach, and to heal an incredible patient population — our veterans. It will be one of the best decisions you ever make.
Dr. Shereef Elnahal serves as the Department of Veterans Affairs under secretary for health. Dr. Elnahal holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and an MBA with Distinction from Harvard Business School.
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